The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump's handling of the pandemic is a political master class

President Trump at a news briefing on the novel coronavirus on April 16.
President Trump at a news briefing on the novel coronavirus on April 16. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

For many years, the great pianist and composer Erroll Garner could not gain membership in the Pittsburgh musicians union. The reason: He did not read music. Finally, in 1956, after Garner’s “Concert by the Sea” album affirmed his incandescent genius and his song “Misty” was on its way to immortality, the union acknowledged that certain gifts make their own rules and granted a card to the hometown giant.

Something about that story makes me think of President Trump. If such a thing as a politicians union existed, I imagine the union hall would be lined with bookshelves bowed under the weight of acquired wisdom. Volumes of Aristotle and Machiavelli nestle close to the constitutional exegeses of Hamilton, Madison and Jay. The Lincoln-Douglas debates perch a row or two above Schlesinger’s “Age of Jackson.” Presidential memoirs, campaign dissections, the graphs of political scientists and the dish of ingenue aides — it’s all there, and union members are expected to read it. (Or at least to pretend enthusiastically to have done so.)

No one in that union wants to admit Trump. He doesn’t fit the image of an informed and calculating political brain. He seems so impulsive. Yet the time has come to grant the man his membership. His political maneuvers around the reopening of the economy have been remarkable.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Befuddled by a crisis with unprecedented complexity, Trump provoked the opposition by asserting vaguely dictatorial powers over decisions in every jurisdiction, from mayors’ offices to the congressional calendar. As they always do, Trump’s Pavlovian critics answered the bell, saturating the airwaves and the Internet with learned discourse on the Founding Fathers, their fear of despotism and the many limits they set on presidential authority.

To which Trump — just as predictably — replied: Okay, have it your way. Never was a man happier to be pronounced powerless. His administration’s 18-page “plan” for tackling the pandemic and its economic consequences boiled down to a jaunty wave and a hearty “good luck!” to U.S. governors, mayors and business owners.

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Meanwhile, a Trump-related super PAC fired off an advertising barrage in critical Great Lakes states that foreshadows the president’s reelection strategy. The hashtag says it all: #BeijingBiden.

What “Misty” was to Garner — the untutored artist’s defining creation — political “unpopularity contests” are to Trump. He understands the majority of Americans will never like him. So he aims to make his opponent even less popular. Do they hate the pandemic (which — wink, wink! — Trump tried to take charge of until his opponents shooed him away)? Well, then, they ought to hate China for unleashing it. And if they hate China, Trump’s campaign need only bind the presumptive Democratic nominee to Beijing.

At political union headquarters, the connoisseurs of canny cynicism must admit that this is more than journeyman jujitsu. It’s a master class. But there’s an important catch: The covid-19 pandemic is not a political football — at least, it should not be one. The disease itself is a matter of life and death. The mystery around the disease, which is both unknown and highly contagious, is causing immense social disruption. And this disruption continues to rock the world’s interdependent economy in ways never seen before.

There are not — there must not be — two sides to covid-19. This crisis is not a chance to “own the libs,” nor is it the moment to indulge one’s Trump hatred. The duty of every citizen of every stripe is to seek in good faith the earliest containment of the disease, the safest restoration of community life and the swiftest return to economic health, regardless of credit or blame.

A genuine crisis such as this doesn’t demand an end to political differences. I think of my father, whose desire for victory in World War II lived alongside his Republican disapproval of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But it does demand the subordination of political differences. Beating the pandemic is a matter larger than party or personality.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) had the right idea. When Trump put on his Idi Amin act and all but declared himself King of Scotland, Cuomo declined to squabble with the commander in chief in the midst of a genuine war. “I put my hand out in total partnership and cooperation to the president,” Cuomo said. “If he wants a fight, he’s not going to get it from me.”

The November election is a referendum on the incumbent: his performance, his judgment, his integrity. If Trump chooses to play political games, and tries to divide rather than unite the country, that’s part of the record and character on which he should be judged.

If his political opposition chooses to engage on those grounds, playing their own games and sowing their own division, they, too, must be judged for that. And judged harshly. Because for them, unlike the president, an unpopularity contest is not their last viable option.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The newfound popularity of America’s governors shows what Trump doesn’t get

George Conway: Trump simply doesn’t understand his job

Greg Sargent: Here’s what really matters about Trump’s despotic claim of ‘total’ authority

Alexandra Petri: The Trump administration’s guide to federalism

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s authority isn’t ‘total.’ But his unfitness is.

Ann Telnaes cartoon: Trump is laying the groundwork for November